Naïve Fans Indulge Football’s Drug Silence
The sporting world stands at the crossroads after the World Anti-Doping Agency outed Russia as an advocate for cheating on the world’s most famous of sporting stages.
The report detailed Russia’s widespread non-compliance with doping standards. It confirmed that Russian doctors and lab workers facilitated cheating with athletes and coaches. It detailed the malicious destruction of over 1,400 samples they had been asked to keep. It stated that Russian law enforcement interfered with samples. It claimed the Russian anti-doping agency provided athletes with advance warning of tests. It claimed they helped hide missed tests and took bribes to cover them up.
The list of accusations cannot be understated, but even more interesting is the comment from WADA that the charges were ‘the tip of the iceberg’. If that is the case, one wonders what lies beneath the surface.
“This iceberg spreads in two different directions,” says UK Athletic Chairman Ed Warner. “I suspect there are probably four, five or six nations that athletics has a problem with. But every other international sport today should be looking at whether the men and women who compete in their events are clean.”
As fans, we too must now be wondering. If not, we ought to be. We’ve indulged in the romance of sport for long enough.
Michelle Smith’s triple gold in 1996 ended in accusation and acrimony. She dated a Dutch shot-putter serving a doping ban and found herself on the Olympic podium in no time. She denied any wrongdoing and allegations were never proven, but the original back-slapping sits uncomfortably.
Stephen Roche remains one of Ireland’s most celebrated sporting heroes. His Tour de France victory came before the days of EPO in the peloton, but years later his name allegedly appeared in documents under aliases that linked him to EPO use on the Tour in the early ‘90s. When journalist David Walsh dared to question Roche live on Irish TV, he was chased out of town as an enemy of Irishness, and an enemy of sport. Roche continues to deny any wrongdoing.
Mo Farah’s success in the London 2012 Olympics, as another example, was one of the highlights of the games. But now it is clouded by suspicion. Farah trained at the Nike Oregon Project, where Head Coach Alberto Salazar has been accused by former pupils of breaking doping rules. Farah continues to deny any wrongdoing. Salazar continues to deny any wrongdoing. You may see a pattern emerging.
Denials are the order of the day but the questions must continue. Otherwise, sport is in danger of becoming a charade where the spectators can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is fake.
Football is next. Fans who think the sport is immune can now only be described as naïve and the silence on the matter is deafening.
That in spite of Arsene Wenger’s suggestion this week that the problem is rife. So far, he’s a voice in the wilderness.
In September, Wenger himself tasted the problem at first hand when Dinamo Zagreb player Arijan Ademi failed a drugs test following their defeat of Arsenal in the Champions League. His B sample remains under investigation.
One of the biggest names in the game today, Pep Guardiola, served a ban after testing positive for nandrolone in 2001. He was later cleared. Jaap Stam tested positive for the same steroid only 2 months after being mysteriously ditched by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. He claims his food may have been spiked. There are plenty more examples, all easily forgotten or ignored.
But football’s drug problem is likely to run deeper than individual cases.
In 2013, Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was sentenced to prison for breaking public health laws after 186 blood bags were found in his clinic in Madrid along with EPO and other supplements. The bags, he claims, belonged to athletes from a range of sports including football. For a price, he offered to reveal the most sordid of sporting secrets. He offered to out Olympic medal winners and Tour de France cyclists but also Spanish Champions League football teams.
One report he flirted with publicising was entitled “How I prepared a team to play in the Champions League.” He was also once quoted as saying “If I would talk, the Spanish football team would be stripped of the 2010 World Cup.” The reports have so far been silenced, and names like Vicente del Bosque deny that Spain nor football has a problem with drugs at all.
So football, for now, continues like so many before, to deny any wrongdoing.
There is too much to lose for those at the top table of the game, which is already being decimated by allegations of corruption.
TV deals and big money sponsorships dominate a game which continues to lose its grip on the beautiful moniker more and more, day after day, scandal after scandal. There are plenty of products for the game’s elite to protect; any drugs revelations put them all in danger.
For football fans, the clues are already out there. But it remains to be seen whether the Russian crisis has the strength to bring down the house of cards in the most popular sport in the world.